A brief philosophy of irreligion for general readers, with a roll call of notable male atheists since antiquity.
Gray (The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom, 2015, etc.) has had it with what passes for atheism these days. Following his own schema of seven thematic types, each chapter gives an overview of historical trends in godless thinking, focusing on a few famous figures for closer inspection. Gray spoils any chance of a big reveal by admitting that only two of the seven types are worth our time. He does reveal his rhetorical motivation: not persuading others to abandon their bad faith in God but instead urging them to denounce and eradicate the “secular humanism that all evangelical atheists promote today.” He faults this “new atheism” with underestimating the function of religious faith to the human psyche and, more alarmingly, with swapping belief in God for a suspiciously theistic devotion to flawed societal constructs like politics, human progress, and science. Citing the destructive potential of modern "political religions" like Bolshevism, the author remains skeptical that universal liberty is best for the future of humanity, claiming, “like Christianity, liberal values came into the world by chance.” Gray spends some quality time with great literary atheists and intellects including Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Conrad, but he reserves most respect for God-denying, life-affirming thinkers like George Santayana as well as for the strand of “mystical atheism” inspired by the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer. Gray’s favorite type of atheism seeks out silence, meditation, and other rapturous states of being while insisting on the incomprehensibility of anything like a creator-god in control of human destiny. This tradition the author likens to apophatic theology like that practiced by Meister Eckhart, whereby no positive statements can describe the divine because it necessarily surpasses the bounds of human conception. With his openly partisan stance as his caveat emptor, Gray intends his capsule histories and philosophies to provoke dialogue among atheists, people of faith, and everybody else.
An occasionally tedious but concise and well-researched overview.